Commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to have County Attorney Sidney Noyes draft a proposed ordinance to reopen the county’s beaches on May 1, with some restrictions on activities, but no restrictions on the hours the beaches will be open.

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Northwest Florida Daily News or the Panama City News Herald .

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson has suggested that the county commission develop a contingency plan in the event that it opens the county’s beaches on May 1 and subsequently discovers an increase in local COVID-19 cases.


Commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to have County Attorney Sidney Noyes draft a proposed ordinance to reopen the county’s beaches on May 1, with some restrictions on activities, but no restrictions on the hours the beaches will be open.


Commissioners closed all 26 miles of the county’s beaches to the public on March 19, as part of a local state of emergency declared in connection with the spread of COVID-19.


Commissioners are scheduled to consider a beach-reopening ordinance at a 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting.


At a specially called Thursday meeting, Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman indicated that if the commission does vote in favor of an ordinance reopening the beaches, commissioners could review the situation at their biweekly meetings, or at special called meetings, if needed, to make any adjustments to the beach ordinance.


But there was no detailed discussion Thursday of contingency planning. In the absence of that discussion, Noyes suggested that commissioners could present any ideas they might have about contingency planning to at least give county officials a start on contingency planning.


“... It would be a good idea, I guess, to give us any ideas you might have,” Noyes told the commissioners, “and that way we can work with the sheriff’s office and the health department, the TDC (Tourist Development Council) to try to start the beginnings of a plan.”


Also at Thursday’s meeting, Chapman suggested that commissioners “have some ideas (on contingency planning) to present Tuesday ... and we’ll address it.”


In the meantime, Adkinson, following his appearance at the county commission meeting, used “Sheriff Live,” his regular Thursday evening interactive social media livestream broadcast, to continue making his argument about the need for a contingency plan.


“There needs to be a plan for what happens if you come back and you open (beaches — and businesses, depending on any upcoming recommendations from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and an appointed task force on reopening the state’s economy) and in three weeks we have 100 cases,” Adkinson said.


“Maybe we don’t (have 100 cases),” Adkinson continued. “I hope we don’t. We’d be lucky if we don’t have more cases. But luck’s not a plan.”


The question, Adkinson said during Thursday’s “Sheriff Live,” is “How do you reopen, and what do you do if things go wrong?"


One current variable — which may or may not be in place on May 1 should commissioners decide on Tuesday to reopen the county’s beaches — is the statewide ban on short-term vacation rentals.


The ban is now set to expire on April 30, two days after the commission is slated to vote on reopening the county’s beaches.


Should the ban be lifted, Adkinson said Thursday evening, people will flock to Walton County and its beaches.


“They are going to come by the tens of thousands,” if the rental ban is lifted, Adkinson said Thursday, because many people are not working, and their children are not in school.


And, Adkinson reminded his Thursday audience, the reason the county’s beaches were closed in the first place was to keep crowds from coming to the county as a means of moderating any spread of COVID-19.


“The truth of the matter is that the beach presents no more specific risk than anywhere else. That wasn’t the issue,” Adkinson said. “The issue was that it caused people from across the country, who were in shelter-in-place and quarantine locations ... to come here and try and ride out their quarantine. That was the issue with the beaches from day one.”


But Adkinson also said Thursday that the “reality of it is, at some point we’re going to have to open the beaches. At some point, businesses have to open, because economically, there is going to come a point where we cannot continue this.”


Then the sheriff went on to say “What I don’t want to see happen is for us to have ... a massive spike right after you reopen. That’s what the concern is.”


In other comments, Adkinson looked ahead at how his department would deal with a reopening of the beaches.


Responding to a viewer’s question on how deputies would enforce social distancing rules — people staying six feet apart, and not gathering in groups of more that 10 as a hedge against spreading the coronavirus — Adkinson said, “It’s a little bit like speeding. You can’t deal with everything, but what you try to get is voluntary compliance. We’re going to do our best to get voluntary compliance, but we will do everything in our power to help (with social distancing).”


As has been the case with enforcing the beach closures, sheriff’s deputies will have the assistance of county code enforcement officers, South Walton Fire District personnel, and the Tourist Development Council’s beach ambassadors with regard to any beach reopening.


But, Adkinson said Thursday, “there will be a lot of personal accountability in this.”


(function() {'use strict';window.addEventListener('message', function(event) {if (typeof event.data['datawrapper-height'] !== 'undefined') {for (var chartId in event.data['datawrapper-height']) {var iframe = document.getElementById('datawrapper-chart-' + chartId) || document.querySelector("iframe[src*='" + chartId + "']");if (!iframe) {continue;}iframe.style.height = event.data['datawrapper-height'][chartId] + 'px';}}});})();